On a significantly hot day in the City of Angels, the grassy grounds of West Hollywood Park and the city’s adjacent library hosted the 11th Annual West Hollywood Book Fair. Tents upon tents dedicated to all sorts of literary themes filled the space and in one corner of the area sat a group of men ready to discuss one of the most interesting and relevant–both socially and artistically–topics of the fair: Street art.
In anticipation of the Los Angeles street art book Stay Up! Los Angeles Street Art by scholar James Daichendt, a professor both at Boston University and Azusa Pacific University where he is also the Director of Exhibitions, a panel took place to discuss street art. Joining Daichendt were street artists Army of One, also known as Jef Campion; ThirdOne from The $tatus Faction; and Ken Siman, who came with copies of the book XCIA’s Street Art Project: The First Four Decades by Hank O’Neal which Siman published earlier this year. The crowd varied in age and included Lord Jim, who took the photos for Stay Up! and has documented street artist Septerhed.
Together, the small group held an intimate banter about the evolving character of street art, its major players, and the Los Angeles-specific personality/style of the form. Among the many salient points brought up by the panel a recurring theme was that of illegality. Jef Campion, a aka Army of One, gave some insight: He dealt with a 2011 arrest for street art, yet has worked as a firefighter for 26 years. ThirdOne stressed that graffiti does not equal an art style, rather it indicates an activity that willingly breaks the law. Said ThirdOne:
Street art and grafitti is illegal. There’s no such thing as a graffiti t-shirt. There’s no such thing as a graffiti painting you will find in a gallery. To me, it’s the act of illegally writing on a wall.
It is illegal, but artists are not the criminals here. Every day, I don’t care where you are in New York or Los Angeles, you can drive down the street – drive down Sunset Boulevard, and an ad agency will put up posters for American Idol all the way down the block. Would you rather look at American Idol posters… or would you rather look at art?
The conversation led to many other hot topics within the street art world and the art sphere in general. Fittingly enough, some of the library’s walls contained murals by street artists like Retna, Kenny Scharf,and Shepard Fairey, the latter of whom engendered much talk amongst the panel. It was obvious from the discussion of Fairey that the street art world still stands divided as to what constitutes commercial success and what means totally selling out. Street art ultimately proves to be a labor of love that comes with its own costs, so where do artists draw the line between making a living and giving up the street art philosophy? Said Thirdone:
Shepard Fairey is such a phenomenon it’s like talking about a religion or like a debate on abortion. But Shepard Fairey for me personally was such an influence, he was such a pioneer. But when I look at it nowadays, I was at Universal Studios yesterday and I see every teenage boy wearing OBEY and I feel like that’s the new Abercrombie and Fitch. Does it water down the message?
Yet as big as Fairey might have gotten, the street art world is even larger. As Siman explained, the street art crew XCIA focused on offering anyone and everyone the opportunity to take in as much art as possible. Siman stressed:
All we’re trying to do is get these [images] out. These are just profound images of beauty. This is like The Wizard of Oz come to life. It’s all about applauding the street artists who have accomplished this and having as many people as possible see their work… What matters is the art. What matters is that it connects to you.
At the end of the panel, attendees could leaf through an advance copy of Stay Up! Los Angeles Street Art, due out in December, and muse on the growing complexities of the art world and the definition of the street art form, as well as on the responsibilities of its practitioners. In looking at street art in Stay Up! or on the surrounding city streets, we could only wonder about the meaning of it all. If the panel is any indication, the questions will only get more tangled, but the streets will hopefully only continue to serve as a canvas for more and more thought-provoking pieces.
Photos by Cindy Schwarzstein